Sleep problems under-studied in US, report finds
Tue Apr 4, 2006
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Although more than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, too few scientists study the problem and too few health-care professionals are trained to diagnose and treat it, a panel of experts reported on Tuesday.

Sleep troubles not only make people miserable -- they cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars every year in medical expenses, lost productivity, accidents and other costs, the Institute of Medicine said in a report.

"Although sleep research and care for individuals with sleep disorders have expanded over the past several years, we currently don't have the capacity to adequately diagnose and treat all who suffer from these problems," said Harvey Colten, who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

"There is much we don't yet understand about the causes and processes that underlie sleep disorders, which is why we need a boost in research," added Colten, a former vice president at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

The institute, one of the independent National Academies of Science that advise the federal government on scientific and health issues, found evidence that most people who have a sleep disorder are undiagnosed and untreated.

For instance, 75 percent of the 6 million people estimated to have sleep apnea, a severe obstruction of breathing during sleep that is linked with sudden death, are never diagnosed.

"Almost 20 percent of all serious car crash injuries in the general population are associated with driver sleepiness, independent of alcohol effects," adds the report.

The report recommends more study but also calls for some immediate action.

"First, a public health campaign is required to increase awareness among the general public," the report reads.

"Secondly, specific education and training strategies are needed to increase awareness among health care professionals, including improved curriculum content and certification requirements," adds the report, commissioned by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, the National Sleep Foundation, and the Sleep Research Society.

It also calls for better monitoring to find out how common sleep problems are in the general population.

Estimates dating back to the 1990s put the cost of medical care for sleep disorders at $15.9 billion, probably a conservative figure, the committee said.

It said medical students generally received only four hours of instruction in sleep medicine -- although any practicing physician is free to prescribe sleep medication.